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Congress Expected to Focus on Education in 2010

For a year that began with great expectations, 2009 ended with many top higher education legislative goals unresolved as other pressing domestic issues dominated the headlines from Washington, D.C.

 It seemed, says Dr. Antonio Flores, president of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, that “health care had taken up most of the oxygen in the city.”

 But there is hope for 2010, college and university leaders say, since it’s inevitable that Congress and President Barack Obama will turn to other domestic topics. High on the list for many advocates is final action on a comprehensive higher education investment bill, the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA).

 Yet, other domestic issues sure to get on the docket this year – such as job creation – also carry implications for colleges and universities.”Jobs are a new focus, and so work-force investment must be a priority,” Flores says.

 As Congress and the president begin to outline a new-jobs plan, the issue likely will resonate with many sectors of higher education, particularly community colleges.”Because of the economic conditions in the country, federal investments in education need to increase,” he says.

Here is a look at other high-priority issues likely to get on Congress’ docket this year:

 SAFRA: The bill would replace the bank-dependent Federal Family Education Loan program with Direct Loans, at a projected savings of $87 billion over 10 years. Congressional Democrats would redirect much of those savings to financial aid programs. Among other provisions, the bill would increase the maximum Pell Grant and index it to inflation; provide $3 billion for a college access and completion fund; allot $2.5 billion for minority-serving institutions over the next 10 years; and steer $9 billion toward community college initiatives.

 While the House of Representatives has approved SAFRA, the Senate is writing its own version of the legislation. Many of the House goals should stay in the Senate bill, says Jake Stillwell, spokesman for the United States Student Association (USSA). But while many observers expect action early in 2010, the precise timing is yet unclear. “There will not be much action until health care is completed,” he says.

The banking industry and some Republicans continue to oppose many elements of the proposal. Loan industry giant Sallie Mae has presented an alternative that would continue FFEL for at least five years. But since that alternative does not generate $87 billion, “We feel good about [SAFRA’s] prospects right now,” says Rich Williams, higher education associate at the nonprofit US PIRG.

 DREAM Act: The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act hasn’t disappeared. It’s just on the side burner for now, and advocates hope to change that in 2010.

 Among other goals, the bill would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant youth of strong character who have graduated from high school and want to graduate from college. If approved, the bill could improve the education and career prospects of about 65,000 individuals a year, sponsors say. Critics, however, contend that the measure rewards those who came to the country illegally.

 Most observers say Congress will push a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2010, with the DREAM Act as one component. With Obama supporting the DREAM Act, there is more enthusiasm for the idea as “a realistic way to improve the country’s citizenship process,” Stillwell says.

 There are still lingering concerns about whether lawmakers can muster enough support for comprehensive immigration reform.”We hope Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform,” says Flores, who notes, however, that the DREAM Act  “would have a stronger chance” of enactment as a standalone measure. “The DREAM Act remains a major issue for us. It helps Latinos who are in limbo at this point.”

The bill continues to face strong opposition from conservatives. The Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform labeled it “a broad amnesty measure disguised as an educational initiative.”

 Minority-serving institutions: The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) still has a long-term goal to increase federal funding for Black colleges to $1 billion a year. For 2010, funding for the Title III Higher Education Act HBCU program is up above $300 million.”We’re continuing to move the needle,” says Shari Crittendon, UNCF vice president for government affairs.

 While the SAFRA bill would add to that total, UNCF also wants to help Black colleges gain a stronger foothold within federal agencies for contracts and grants.

 Even when the economy was strong, “We didn’t believe federal agencies had made the investments in (historically Black colleges and universities) that they could,” Crittendon says. With college investment portfolios down and some donors cutting back, she says it is “a critical time” for Black colleges, and partnerships with federal agencies could provide new opportunities.

 She identified the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Transportation as two of many federal agencies that could house new partnerships. The work of the White House Initiative on HBCUs will be critical in fostering such relationships, she added.

 After discussions with the Black college community, this White House office soon should have a new executive order outlining these efforts. HACU also is focused on expanding federal involvement with its members. Flores says he is urging the Obama administration to create a “presidential advisory board” on HSIs similar to those that exist for HBCUs and tribal colleges. The government already has White House initiatives on HBCUs and tribal institutions, Flores noted. A White House initiative on Hispanics governs both K-12 and higher education, giving HSIs less visibility.

 Flores also hopes to complete a new partnership between Hispanic-serving institutions and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Under the America Competes Act of 2007, the science agency is to create an HSI undergraduate program. Discussions are continuing, he says, with the agency presenting its plans for a new program by fiscal year 2011, which begins next fall.

 Digital divide: UNCF is urging the federal government to step forward with funds to support the Minority-Serving Institutions Digital Wireless program. Created by Congress in 2007, the program authorizes up to $250 million a year to help minority-serving colleges improve their technological infrastructure and address the digital divide.

 Despite bipartisan support in enacting the bill, Congress has never backed up that commitment. “It still has not been funded,” Crittendon notes. UNCF sees some hope in the 2010 appropriations bill just written by the House and Senate. While there is no direct funding, Crittendon says language in the bill urges the federal government to find funding within its new budget or through the Recovery Act, the economic stimulus bill that has plowed millions of dollars into broadband technology initiatives.

 Based on this language, UNCF has a powerful argument to make to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the agency that would house the digital wireless program. “This is important to continue to build the capacity of HBCUs,” she added.

 Student protections: USSA is pushing Congress to approve legislation on a new U.S. consumer agency that would oversee, among other items, the private student loan industry. Of particular concern to the student group are so-called “gap loans” issued by for-profit colleges to cover the difference between tuition and a student’s ability to pay. “These loans are risky and have an enormous default rate,” Stillwell says.

 A House committee has approved the bill to create the Consumer Financial Protection Agency and more action is likely in 2010.

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